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Marking the 150th anniversary of the ultimate psychological novel: Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

“The power of his works lie in their moral dilemmas” — Kate Holland, U of T Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures

Photo of: Kate HollandRussian author Fyodor Dostoevsky is often hailed as the father of the modern crime novel and his novel Crime and Punishment, published 150 years ago is lauded for its psychological study of a man’s mind.

A&S News spoke with Kate Holland, an associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures in the Faculty of Arts & Science about the novel, its author and planned anniversary celebrations.

Give us a bit of background on Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky is seen as one of the luminaries of the golden age of the Russian novel, but he wasn’t a member of the upper class elite. He was the first professional writer in Russia, the first novelist to make his living from
writing.

Dostoevsky became involved in a radical group in St. Petersburg which was infiltrated by a government spy. He and his fellow conspirators were arrested and held in a political prison for months, expecting a sentence of exile. They were given a death sentence instead, which was commuted to exile only a few minutes before they were due to die.

Dostoevsky spent 10 years in Siberian exile, where he had a conversion experience and reaffirmed his Orthodox Christian faith.

Why is he considered such an important writer?

Portrait of: Fedor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872

Oil on canvas portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vasily Perov, 1872.  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Dostoevsky is often called a novelist of ideas. His works pose universal philosophical and moral dilemmas in profoundly compelling and deeply relatable ways.

It is important to point out that Dostoevsky is not a systematic thinker, not a political theorist or a philosopher. The power of his works lie in their moral dilemmas: he demonstrates how those dilemmas play out in concrete fictional situations.

Dostoevsky was also a pioneer of the form of the novel. He represented ideas in a radically new way, having them voiced by characters who enter into dialogues with one another, so that ideology becomes part of the fabric of the novel itself. He shows how characters’ world views are shaped by the ideas they have grown up with.

Why is Crime and Punishment such a celebrated novel?

Although Crime and Punishment helped to give rise to the traditions of crime fiction and the detective novel, it is a crime novel with a difference: we know who the murderer is (Raskolnikov) from the opening pages; the great mystery is his motive.

Crime and Punishment is the ultimate psychological novel. It experiments with several different kinds of narration to bring the reader into the murderer’s mind and to examine the psychological effects of the crime on the criminal.

The novel has contributed to changes in the way we think about crime and in which crime is represented in literary and cultural works.

One hundred and fifty years have passed since its creation. Why is the novel relevant in today’s society?

Unfortunately, the act of killing for an idea is still alive and well in today’s society. By examining the relationship of Raskolnikov’s ideas to his actions, Crime and Punishment helps to deconstruct and complicate both the ideology and psychology behind political violence and terrorism.

Contemporary readers will also find the relationship between crime and the city in the novel very familiar. Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg displays a familiar urban landscape that includes homeless refugees from the countryside, exploited child prostitutes, child abusers, drunks, but also unexpected kindness, generosity and joy in the most unexpected places.

How are you marking the 150th anniversary?

Katherine Bowers (UBC) and I received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research (SSHRC) Connections Grant to help celebrate the novel’s 150th anniversary. The events include the North American premiere of a new Australian film adaptation of the novel; library exhibitions at U of T, at the University of Cambridge, and online; a Twitter event which has seen the novel tweeted from Raskolnikov’s viewpoint this July by six prominent Dostoevsky scholars; and an online group read of the novel under the auspices of the North American Dostoevsky Society.